Police get new weapon to fight Vancouver street war

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 October, 2007, 12:00am

Officers to arrest bar patrons linked to gang activities

Vancouver's downtown nightclubs and bars have become ground zero in an escalating gang war, and violent crime is going to be one of the police force's top priorities, says its new police chief.

'We are definitely worried about the recent gang shootings,' Chief Jim Chu said in his first speech to the Vancouver Board of Trade.

Now police and bar owners hope a new weapon in their fight with gang members will cool things down. In an initiative that begins tomorrow, bar managers and owners have given police authorisation to remove any patron linked to gang activities.

'The goal is to make downtown safe for the public, the bar staff and the police,' Inspector Rollie Woods said.

Ironically, Inspector Woods said that goal would also make the area safe for gang members themselves.

The police would not be going from bar to bar arresting people, he said, but making the vicinity unwelcoming to gang members and discouraging them from patronising those places.

The agreement between bar owners, who are part of a group called Barwatch, and police is a shift in policing policy. Under Canadian law, bar owners or staff can ask patrons to leave, and if they refuse, then police are called.

But the new arrangement gives police the power to enter establishments and confront customers identified as gang members or as having affiliations with gangs.

The move comes at a time when gang violence appears to be worsening in the city. In August, two men were killed and two others injured after being hit with a hail of gunfire from masked assailants in a late-night eastside Chinese restaurant.

Last month, two patrons at an upscale Italian restaurant in Vancouver's westside were hit with bullets fired by gunmen shooting from the footpath outside.

Just a few weeks ago, nightclub promoter Jason Louie was shot in his parked vehicle near an inner-city school.

Police are reluctant to say there is increasing gang violence in Vancouver. Chief Chu said the chance of being a victim was small, and that those in danger were involved in gangs or risky behaviour.

But bar owners are concerned.

'We can't have people shooting each other inside our establishments, inside of the downtown core,' John Teti, who heads Barwatch, said.

In one of the city's most infamous shootings in recent years, two people including a bystander were killed when gunfire broke out in a downtown nightclub in 2003.

Mr Teti said police intelligence had informed bar owners that there was the possibility of retaliation after the recent shootings. The risk for staff and other patrons was unacceptable, he said.

Former police officer Dave Jones said the concern about having a large number of bars concentrated in one area of downtown was that different gangs might compete to establish their turf.

A lot of the violence in nightclubs or associated with them was related to a show of force between rival gang members, he said.

'One gang type would go somewhere and not show the right respect or not back off, and it became an almost primitive caveman ritual,' said Mr Jones, who now works for the Downtown Business Improvement Association. 'That's when these places can be very dangerous.'

As a police officer in the district, Mr Jones said he would often encounter doormen at these clubs wearing body armour.

The new agreement between police and bar staff designating officers with the powers to remove patrons was a tool for which the force had lobbied in the past, according to Mr Jones, but there were concerns that the designation was too broad and could be challenged in court.

Mr Jones said the new powers would allow police to arrest and remove people who officers identified as gang members.

Clubs already use metal detectors to screen out patrons with weapons, but police say getting around that barrier is as simple as gang members leaving others outside in waiting cars with guns at the ready if problems erupt.